Lese majeste prosecutions hurt monarchy-New Mandala

April 7, 2009

Suwicha Thakor and lese majeste
Nicholas Farrelly
New Mandala: April 6th, 2009

http://rspas.anu.edu.au/rmap/newmandala/2009/04/06/suwicha-thakor-and-lese-majeste/

Every time somebody is convicted of lese majeste Thailand’s monarchy ends up looking bad.

After over six decades on the throne King Bhumibol Adulyadej has yet to really push for reform of a law that makes his rule seem fragile and even a little vindictive.  We are still, somewhat bizarrely, supposed to believe that the palace harbours disquiet about the law’s application.  However, as the current wave of convictions mounts up this understanding is becoming increasingly hard to maintain.

The evidence now suggests that the palace is as comfortable with efforts to lock up those who poke fun at the monarchy as it is with the exploitation of the royal image to overthrow elected governments.  The evidence is that the palace takes a dim view of constitutional or legal developments that dilute its power.  The goal, we must conclude, is to remain unchallenged by dissenters, by populists and by those others who wants to see democratic politics come to the fore.

For social scientists studying Thailand, lese majeste and its application should, of course, remain only one part of any effort to understand the country.  Nonetheless this law provides a window into the priorities and prejudices of the elite as they go about the business of maintaining control.

Suwicha Thakor (สุวิชา ท่าค้อ) is the latest small fish to drop into the abyss of lese majeste hell.  Clearly, his circumstances are different to those experienced by a Jakrapob Penkair, a Sondhi Limthongkul or a Sulak Sivaraksa, who have all also been recently accused of this most opaque of crimes.  These men, and others like them, have many allies in their efforts to stay out of jail.  Suwicha has almost none and, like Boonyuen Prasertying, he has paid the price for his lack of good connections.

Convicted last week for posting online material deemed offensive to the monarchy, he has been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.

Thankfully parts of the media are already helping publicise his dire circumstances.  A wide range of outlets including the usual Thai renegades (such as Prachatai and Fah Deow Gan), more mainstream sources (like Kavi Chongkittavorn at The Nation, Thai Rath, and Matichon), some of the new agencies (such as Associated Press and Reuters) and others (Reporters without Borders, The Telegraph, etc, etc) have all made efforts to report on Suwicha’s conviction.  Let’s hope this is just the beginning of a torrent of well-researched and hard-hitting pieces that skewer the justifications for locking him up.

The international academic campaign to draw attention to the abuses inherent to the lese majeste law should also get fully behind him and his family.  His punishment undermines any remaining sense that there is freedom of thought in Thailand.  As his days in prison tick by, and his life melts away on a concrete prison floor, Suwicha Thakor deserves whatever support we can offer.  Beyond that, all we can hope is that he is free soon, and back where he rightly belongs with his family and friends.

Experience suggests that dogged media attention embarrasses the palace and the Thai political elite.  It will be hard, no doubt, to keep foreign media outlets interested in Suwicha’s case but that is what he needs.

Such coverage will put extra pressure on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva; a man who so clearly enjoys the positive attention that world-renowned bastions of intellectual freedom can provide.  But without taking the lead on reforming lese majeste his legacy will inevitably be tarnished.  Abhisit’s current performance on these cases dictates that he shouldn’t expect an uncritical welcome at free Universities any time soon.

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